On June 23, 2016, a narrow majority of Britons (51.9%) decided to vote in favor of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Nearly four years of negotiations later, after several postponements and a transition period of just under a year, the decision finally came into effect at midnight Brussels time on December 31, 2020.
The consequences of this decision will be manifold, sometimes unpredictable, and will undoubtedly extend over many years. But it has also revived an old debate: that of a common European language, and therefore that of the place of English within the EU.
As a matter of fact, more than 90% of the documents of the Parliament, the Council, the Commission and most European institutions are written in the language of Shakespeare. In 2021, some voiced criticisms, wanting to put an end to the hegemony of English as the working language of the post-Brexit European Union. But while English might be a lingua franca, it has never been the official language of the EU, which actually has 24 official languages, those of its member states. In theory, the withdrawal of the United Kingdom does not change this.
In practice, even though, pre-Brexit, English held the title of the most spoken language by EU citizens (38%), only two countries list it as an official language today, Malta and Ireland, which represent just over 1% of the EU population. Can this dominance continue? A drastic about-face, purely and simply banning English from European institutions seems highly unlikely, and equally undesirable! This would send a hostile and antagonizing message, and would wreak considerable havoc, which we do not need in this time of crisis. It would be wiser to take heed of the words of the Italian philosopher and essayist, Umberto Eco: “The language of Europe is translation.” After all, the European motto incorporated into the European Constitutional Treaty in 2004, “In varietate concordia” (United in diversity), is a constant reminder of the unique richness of multilingual and multicultural Europe.